Once again, President George W. Bush is hinting at preventive war—this time, ostensibly, to stop the Islamic Republic of Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Given the catastrophe that followed Bush’s last “non-proliferation war” in Iraq, and the deceit employed to sell it, one would expect the public to rebel against the recent rumors of airstrikes on Iran.
Indeed, an April 13 Los Angeles Times poll found that 54 percent of respondents do not “trust George W. Bush to make the right decision about whether we should go to war with Iran.” Still, 48 percent of those respondents “would support military action if Iran continued to produce material that could be used to develop nuclear weapons.” That startling figure requires explanation—and some qualification.
No American politician is going to fall in the polls for evincing hostility toward Iran. This is a fact rooted in the history of Iranian-US relations since the Islamic revolution in 1979—and, in particular, the 444-day captivity of 52 Americans in the US Embassy in Tehran.
The hostage crisis was a national trauma. ABC launched its recently canceled program Nightline to provide a nightly update. The failure of President Jimmy Carter’s ill-conceived helicopter rescue operation symbolized, for many Americans, the depth of the country’s post-Watergate “malaise.” The sense of powerlessness elicited bellicose gut reactions, seen on T-shirts depicting Mickey Mouse giving Iran the finger and in graffiti reading “Nuke ‘em till they glow.”
The Bush administration awakens these memories when its new National Security Strategy says, “We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran.” Top Democrats also play on these dormant fears in their sordid striving to outflank Bush to his right on national security. This winter, Sen. Hillary Clinton assessed the Iranian nuclear issue as follows: “I believe we lost critical time in dealing with Iran because the White House chose to downplay the threats and to outsource the negotiations.” And, of course, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with his defiant puffery and questioning of the Holocaust, provides ample ammunition for any politician asked to prove that there is an enemy.
Since 1979, American enmity toward Iran has gone hand in hand with ignorance about the country. Even as Iran continued to be listed as a high security concern, the US government did little to bolster reliable scholarship on Iran. For years, none of the major universities in Washington offered Persian. Congress invests only modestly in the Department of Education’s Title VI program, which can be used by universities to support the teaching of Persian language and Iranian politics, culture and history. In a seeming reversal of this troubling trend, in March, the State Department initiated a $65 million program to bolster its own Iran expertise, because the diplomats who knew the country well have long since retired.
What Americans do “know” about Iran is deeply politicized. Many of the Iran “experts” in the public sphere, like Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy or Raymond Tanter of the Iran Policy Council, are not dispassionate purveyors of knowledge, but advocates for a hawkish stance. Even Azar Nafisi’s wildly bestselling memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, does political work: posing the Western literary canon as the savior of Iranian women. And how many times have columnists—including the progressive Molly Ivins—used the term “Shiite” to mean “fanatical”?
These realities notwithstanding, the Bush administration will encounter difficulty should they “roll out” an attack-Iran public relations campaign in earnest. Unlike Iraq before the war, Iran is not a black box. Journalists have demonstrated that Iranians do not favor outside intervention to halt the nuclear program, which most of them support. Somewhat surprisingly, given how many of them fled clerical rule, Iranian-Americans across the political spectrum reject US-led regime change or war, and their voices are being heard. When Bush visited California in April, Iranian-Americans there demonstrated against a war on Iran. The lone backers of intervention, associates of the cultish Mojahedin-e Khalq, are compromised by their group’s inclusion on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. This group has no credibility within Iran or among Iranian-Americans. Finally, there is the constantly blaring warning siren of Iraq—which continues to erode public trust in the White House.
Bernard Lewis, the influential Middle East historian and sometime adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, has famously pronounced that the language best understood in the Middle East is the language of force. In the Iranian case, this approach could be disastrous. As Ervand Abrahamian, a leading historian of Iran, has noted, Iranian leaders who stand up to foreign meddling have a way of becoming national heroes. No Iranian president wants to yield to the scolds of a US secretary of state or the threats of a US president, for fear of being seen as weak. The US should rely heavily on diplomacy, using back channels if necessary, providing the Iranian leadership with a face-saving way to arrive at a policy on Iran’s nuclear program that is acceptable to all parties. Meanwhile, the international community should refocus on human rights in Iran, which have been increasingly disrespected while the world is distracted by the nuclear issue.
Given who is in the White House, one cannot assume that logic will prevail in the developing US-Iranian confrontation. But cooler heads can mobilize, and logic is completely on their side.